Lao Issara, Thao O Anourack and the Franco-Laotians

Lao Issara, Thao O Anourack and the Franco-Laotians

At the outset of its rule, the authority of the Lao Issara provisional government was extremely limited outside Vientiane. In the north, the towns of Louangphrabang, Phôngsali, and Louang Namtha were occupied by the Chinese. The Franco-Laotian guerrillas, with support from Touby Lyfoung's Hmong, had taken control of the main towns of Xiangkhoang Province at the beginning of September. Their hold on Houaphan was much less solid, in spite of efforts on the part of the provincial governor, Phoumi Vongvichit, to prevent the Chinese from entering the province. Here, because of its proximity to Vietnam, the revolutionary propaganda spread by the Viet Minh was strong but also pro-Viet Minh rather than pro-Lao Issara. Moreover, the main roads leading east were denied to the Franco-Laotian guerrillas by Viet Minh detachments coming from Vietnam. In the center and south, the Lao Issara government controlled the towns of Thakhek and Savannakhét. Most of the remainder of the provinces of Khammouan and Savannakhét was controlled by the Franco-Laotian guerrillas. So were the southernmost provinces of Pakxé and Saravan, which fell largely in the British zone of operation decided upon at the Potsdam Conference and where Prince Boun Oum of Champasak, sympathetic to the French, had 15,000 troops under his command.

The outlook became more favorable for the Lao Issara as the year ended. France, preoccupied with the situation in Vietnam, was unable to send reinforcements to the Franco-Laotian guerrillas. Fabre and his men were evacuated from Vientiane--eventually to Thailand--under an escort provided by the Chinese. Various events led the Franco-Laotian guerrillas to evacuate Xiangkhoang town and Louang Namtha. While Viet Minh propaganda exploited differences between the Lao and Phuan on the one hand and Touby's Hmong on the other, the Viet Minh were themselves putting together a Hmong guerrilla force under Faydang Lobliayao of the Lo clan. In Louangphrabang, Imfeld and his men had been subjected to all kinds of pressure, culminating in their evacuation across the river under Chinese escort on January 4.

In Vientiane, the Lao Issara government was confronted with a growing list of problems. The most serious was how to finance the government because the treasury was empty and there were no funds to pay civil servants. An attempt to tax opium exports was unenforceable because the government did not control opium trade routes. The government even took steps to abolish the Indochinese régie (state monopoly) that regulated the opium trade and make it a Laos monopoly. In desperation, the government appealed to the Thai government for a press on which to print money. Foreign relations and the procurement of military equipment were also problems.

Beginning in January 1946, with the loss anew of Xiangkhoang, the fortunes of the Lao Issara government began to decline. The Franco-Laotian guerrillas were receiving reinforcements and supplies by air and road from French headquarters in Saigon, which made entry into the towns possible for the first time. Lao Issara appeals to the Viet Minh for assistance went largely unheeded, and the Franco-Laotian guerrillas once again were positioned along the main roads leading from Vietnam.

After long negotiations in Chongqing, China's wartime capital, the French government obtained China's commitment to withdraw its troops from Indochina. The withddrawal allowed the Franco-Laotian guerrillas to make their entry into Savannakhét against token resistance camouflaged by the Chinese withdrawal. At Thakhek, however, Souphanouvong and his largely Vietnamese force were determined to make the French pay. In a day-long battle on March 21, approximately 700 of the defenders and 300 civilians were killed.

With the French menacing Vientiane, the first thought of the Lao Issara government was to regularize its relations with the monarchy. On March 23, Xieng Mao, having abandoned Vientiane for Louangphrabang, sent the king a letter asking him to resume his throne. But the king was in no hurry, and it was not until April 23 that the king signaled his acceptance of the constitution and reaffirmed the unity of Laos by a royal ordinance.

Meanwhile, a strong French column was making its way up the road from Vientiane to Louangphrabang. Simultaneously, Hmong guerrillas moved west to harass Chinese troops in the vicinity of the royal capital. The French column entered Louangphrabang forcing Phetsarath and the Lao Issara ministers to flee Laos. The king welcomed the French by declaring null and void all acts that he had sanctioned under pressure from the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Lao Issara since April 4, 1945. He also promised a democratic constitution.

The Lao Issara government-in-exile set up its headquarters in Bangkok. Scattered groups of armed partisans mounted raids into Laos from bases along the Mekong and in southern Laos. One group was under the command of Thao O Anourack. After the Japanese takeover, Thao O had refused the Franco-Laotian guerrillas' appeal to join them. When the Lao Issara took over Savannakhét, the provincial governor appointed him commander of liberation forces in Xépôn. Thus, when the Franco-Laotians reoccupied Xépôn in March 1946, Thao O made his way east with some 200 to 300 men to the safety of Lao Bao just across the border of Vietnam. Eventually, he was forced to abandon Laos altogether and to make his way to Hanoi where the Viet Minh put him in touch with Kaysone Phomvihan, a Vietnamese-Lao métis (person of mixed race) from Savannakhét who had been sent to direct Lao Issara radiobroadcasts over Radio Hanoi, and Nouhak Phoumsavan, a Vietnamese from Mukdahan. Neither Kaysone Phomvihan nor Nouhak Phoumsavan had a significant role in the Lao Issara, but both had the confidence of Ho Chi Minh and saw in Ho's government the salvation of an independent Laos.

The Vietnamese proposed to Thao O--and he accepted--that he form a committee for the liberation of Laos. Nouhak became president of the committee. The enlistment of other small groups from Xiangkhoang and Houaphan brought the effective strength under Thao O's command to 500; he dispatched one company each to Xam Nua, Xiangkhoang, Muang Mo, Napé, and Muang Sen. Thao O soon received secret codes from Phetsarath and Souvanna Phouma in Bangkok that allowed him to communicate with his companies.

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